Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi

I don’t always miss you.

Lost in dreamless sleep, I long for nothing and no one.

When I’m busy and focused,

I don’t notice that a part of me is elsewhere, miles and miles away.

When I’m aware

Of the sound of silence, my breath, or the birds in the trees

I’m not drifting, lost, a sail without wind on an endless sea.

But otherwise…

When night approaches quietly, and emptiness creeps in like something slithering,

When memories come crashing in like waves, leaving an ebb of regret,

When the rest of the day goes on,

Your face tugs at the sleeve of my mind

Over and over

Reminding me of all I’ve left behind,

And all that I could lose.

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Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

Changing Weather, Changing Plans

I’ve just left Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario, after finishing the winter retreat period plus another month.

When I arrived, it was a typical Canadian winter. Slowly I watched the icy and snow capped landscape gradually thaw and transform into spring. By the time I left, the lakes had thawed, the trees were budding, and the grass was an electric green.

Which recycling category do raccoons fit in?


Brrrr!

Inukshuk


The retreat itself went well. Perhaps not in a way of deep concentration, but insights nonetheless. When you spend day after day with a handful of people on a regular basis, the experience becomes a giant mirror on your interpersonal habits. How do you respond in a skillful way (hopefully) when someone pushes your buttons? And you also find how you push other people’s buttons as well. How does each situation feel? Where is the suffering? When all our usual distractions are removed, habits become more obvious. 

For example, while I love alone time, if I’m around other people, there’s a tendency for me to talk. Sometimes a lot. I was able to look at this and see where it came from, and when it causes difficulty. Am I now quiet and reserved? Hardly. But there is at least a new awareness around it. And also an awareness that it’s not always a bad thing in some situations, and not necessarily a problem unless I make it one. So there’s a bit of acceptance as well. I’m willing to call it progress.

Amidst all this personal work was time making new friendships and strengthening old ones. The community of monks and lay people here is quite a warm, welcoming group, and one I feel comfortable returning to.

It’s a long story, but tonight I’m headed back to England to Harnham Monastery, which I visited last year. I’ll still have limited internet, but will try to post again from there.

Be well and happy, dear readers!

Winter Retreat at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, Ontario CA

Morning time, and all is quiet, except for the sound of my boots, crunching through the snow.Wind blows cold, making the -14C (10F) seem much colder. It seeps through my thin cotton pants, reminding me that another bottom layer would have been a good idea.

Oh well.

I choose a quiet road, where no vehicles have been since last night’s snow. The animals have been busy here however, and I see footprints of deer, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. Snow still covers the branches of the trees, unmelted as of yet by a sun that’s shining through a thick curtain of clouds.

I reach a nearby lake, still frozen to some degree, but not enough for me to comfortably test. I stop to enjoy the immensity of the frozen form, the enticing islands in the middle of it. To enjoy the quiet. The vastness.


Walking back, I hear a conversation between two old trees, creaking and moaning as they sway in the wind. 

“Oh, my joints ache” 

“Oh, me too. And my lumbago is acting up: I got no rest last night!”

“Yes, I heard you groaning all night”

I return to the monastery, where the guests stay in a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s my quiet day, on which I have no responsibilities, other than to take time to be present and enjoy the space, and spend time with the mind.

The six of us here have the pleasant task of keeping the monastery running while the monastics and long term lay residents are on retreat. It’s not an onerous job by any means, and we have plenty of quiet time as well. It’s a lovely bunch of people to be with, and a wonderful, peaceful place. 
**Just as a side note, there is very limited internet time here, so I’m not following blogs while I’m here. So if I haven’t “liked” or commented on your posts lately, it’s not personal. I’ll be back into the blogging world in May. Maybe.

Finding Balance

During my recent travels, for the most part I was removed from American politics. I could watch what was going on in both the American and local (wherever I was at the time) political arena as an outsider, which lent itself to equanimity.

I can’t say that I was that involved before I left, but I could certainly see a sense of self revolve around political events and my reaction to them: this leader was “bad”, this other was “good”. I liked some policies, others seemed misguided at best. That duality was somewhat encouraged by the crowds I was within. Not because anyone suggested doing this, but because we all shared the same opinions.

But finding myself in other countries, it was easier to remove myself from political views and opinions. Not that I didn’t have them, but their pull was not as strong. Events in the states were occurring halfway around the world, and without constant access to television, I heard less about them. Locally, not being a citizen, I had no influence over what happened, which granted a certain freedom. It’s easy to be equanimous when one isn’t directly involved (The Indian demonetization excepted).

I have to say that the equanimity was a relief. A freedom to put views and opinions at a distance and say, in the words of one of my teachers, “It’s like this”.

In the Buddha’s time, monastics were instructed to stay out of politics. The idea was that monasteries should be a place of refuge for those of any political party, and no one should feel like they wouldn’t be welcome. Also, there was a higher goal of maintaining equanimity and losing the sense of “this is mine, this is I, this is my self”.

And while I don’t fall under the requirements that monasteries do, I still would like to think that I could have positive exchanges with people of opposing views. That the practice of metta wouldn’t be limited to political party, and that all would feel welcome in my presence.

Even as a lay-person, equanimity is still a goal. So at first, when I returned, my goal was to stay out of the political world, holding on to that equanimity with all my might.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Thanks to a regular exposure to views and opinions from both sides, I found myself in a quandary. When faced with actions that can cause harm to a large group of people, is it fair to stand aside and do nothing? As a layperson, I have no precept or constraint to stay out of politics. So the question I’m facing is this: can one find a balance between standing up for what one believes to be right, yet maintain equanimity? Can one recognize and resist when harm is being done without holding to views and opinions?

I haven’t figured out the answer yet. I believe somewhere in watching the mind, and seeing what leads to suffering and what doesn’t is the key. It’s a work in progress. I suppose that’s why they call it a “practice”.

Out with a Bang

Before and after the trip to Wat Pah Nanachat, I spent two full days out and about in Bangkok. My hotel was convenient for getting to and from the airport, but not so much for to and from the main part of the city. That being said, it was easy to find my way around Bangkok by way of the metro system.

Like metros in other cities, Bangkok’s system has handy maps at the stations, and arrows all over to help you on your way. The cars are clean and the lines take you to most of the major tourist and other stops. Other than rush hour, it’s pretty uncrowded. During rush hour is every bit fitting of the image one can conjure of a crowded subway car. But in a humorous way, since the riders are able to go with the flow.

During one ride, I watched more and more people climb on. Those of us that were standing close smiled at each other, and although we didn’t speak, conversed with our eyes, saying “this is crazy, na?”. At each stop, it seemed like there was no way any more people could fit in the car. And then five more people squeezed in. Again at the next stop, and the next one. I never saw anyone stay behind at the station, saying “oh, forget it”.

As we piled out like lemmings, I made my way to the Grand Palace. Instead of one building, it’s a combination of more, and has been home to the successive kings there. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha is kept. Sitting upon a giant dais, the emerald Buddha is actually made from Jade, and is 75cm high. No pictures are allowed inside the temple, but there is plenty to photograph outside.

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The highlight for me that day was Wat Pho, the home of the reclining Buddha. Perhaps it was the absence of crowds, but even though I enjoyed the palace, I enjoyed Wat Pho even more. It was a peaceful, beautiful place one could get lost in, filled with all the ornamental gold and building finery you could imagine.

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As evening drew near, I was on my way to the exit when I heard chanting. I went in the temple to discover about two dozen monks chanting parittas, aka blessing chants. I sat down and enjoyed the atmosphere for a while before twilight approached.

After I returned from Wat Pah Nanachat, I took the metro again to the river taxi, and rode along the river to the northern end of town for less than 20 Baht. There is a tourist boat that costs 150 Baht to hop on and off all day, or one can take a few individual trips. I went up and back, so it wasn’t worth paying for the tourist fee.

img_1552img_1554img_1584At the north end of town is an old fashioned market with all forms of food, clothing, and various trinkets. It wasn’t too crowded, and I really enjoyed wandering around, taking pictures of all the things for sale.

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“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

img_1604Looking for another similar market, I ended up in two rather upscale malls. While the malls were unique, I found the market experience much more agreeable.

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Sculpture outside the mall. Ummm….what?

The next day I relaxed at the hotel before going to the airport a bit early. Having waited all day in Indian train stations, waiting here was a breeze. Clean, quiet, and with lots of stores and restaurants, I had no difficulty just hanging out. Once I got through security and customs, I was amazed and even a bit overwhelmed with the number of shops available.

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Available at the airport: your very own monk bank

And thus began my 24hour trip to get home. I arrived two days ago, and am still a little jet lagged. But I must say it feels good to be back. I’ll be staying in rural Pennsylvania with my folks for a while, then staying at a monastery in Canada for a few months (yes, I’m going to freeze my….off). While I enjoyed this trip for the most part, it’s been a bit long. Traveling can be fun, but long haul travel is an excellent opportunity for seeing the value in putting down roots.

And so I will trust in the universe to show me where to plant myself.

Retreating to Wat Pah Nanachat 

Wat Pah Nanachat is a Buddhist monastery in northeastern Thailand that belongs to the Thai Forest Theravadan school of Buddhism. It was founded by Ajahn Chah (a renowned monk in that tradition) in the early 70’s as he had an increasing number of western students. At Wat Pah Nanachat the western monks could receive the same training given in other Thai Forest monasteries, but in English until they gained some proficiency in the Thai language. Many of the western monks in this tradition today started out at this monastery, and I wanted to spend some time there.

I had originally planned a longer visit, but travel fatigue and diminishing funds shortened the Thailand portion of the trip. Still, this was definitely the highlight of my time in Thailand, so I thought I’d share the experience, and in a slightly different way…
From Bangkok, you decide to take the scenic twelve hour train route to Ubon Ratchathani. To make things more interesting, you decide to go third class on a friend’s advice. So early in the morning you go to the train station (which lacks the grime and smell of urine that you’re used to at train stations), buy your ticket and find your seat by the window. 

The train is pretty empty. There are rows of benches facing each other on both sides of the aisle, and fans overhead. The coach is fairly clean. A few people step aboard, hoist their luggage in the racks overhead, and begin speaking to each other and occasionally to you, in Thai. A melodic language of which you understand very little, if any. You find yourself wishing you had studied a little more Thai before you got here.The train takes off and you feel the wind on your face as you watch at first buildings, then rice paddies go by. It’s a moving picture that keeps you entertained in between trying to communicate with the friendly people who sit near you and trying to identify the food that the numerous vendors bring by.


You see little packages wrapped in banana leaves and know from experience that sticky rice is usually inside. You summon up the courage to by some for a minimal price and proceed to open a small breakfast of sticky rice with sweet beans inside. 

You’re not disappointed. A bit later you decide to try another dish. While you prefer vegetarian food, the only options seem to be meat. Half chickens on a stick. Fish on a stick. Pieces of pork on a stick. You go for the latter and hope for the best. Later, of course, they bring the vegetables – slices of something between a cucumber and a squash with sweet chili powder. You eat all this along with a Thai iced tea before noon and call it good.

The scenery and hours go by until you reach Ubon Ratchathani, and finally your hotel. Knowing you’ll have to be up before the crack of dawn for the next few days, you turn in early.
And wake up in the early morning running to the bathroom. 

Your head is aching like your worst migraine, you feel hot, then cold, and spend the day throwing up. And wondering, was it the pork? You’ll never know, but you’re certainly not going to the monastery today. You’re thankful that you didn’t eat anything in the evening yesterday. It’s not until later that evening that you can tolerate sips of fluids, and the headache begins to subside.

The next morning is a new day, you’re feeling 90% better and you head to the monastery. Behind the gates of Wat Pah Nanachat is a forested area that feels like another world. You find the large, open sided meditation hall and sit down with a mat on the marble floor. 


About two dozen monks arrive in ochre robes, sit down at the front of the hall, and chant a blessing. Then they go to the kitchen to receive food that has been prepared and offered to them. Like the monastics in the Buddha’s time, they rely completely on the lay community for food: whatever is offered is what they eat for that day. No calling Domino’s Pizza or running to 7-11 for snacks. The monastics are fed and given shelter, and the lay community benefits by receiving spiritual guidance and examples of ethical behavior. It’s a two way street that ties the two together. In addition, the monastics are required to finish their meal before noon. At Wat Pah Nanachat, the meal is offered at 8 am and finished well before 9. 

When the monks have been served, you join the other guests in taking the meal. You then meet with the monk who arranges guest lodging. Visitors to the monastery are expected to abide by the eight precepts, and are asked to turn in electronic devices during their stay. Even though you use it often, you breathe a sigh of relief at cutting the internet cord for a while.
You’re taken to the women’s section where you’re assigned a meditation hut, called a kuti. You’re given a reed mat to sleep on, a blanket, and a pillow. You have your own sheets. There are no beds – it’s just the mat. You’re also given black skirts and grey tops that are the uniform of women visitors. Male visitors wear all white, and after a week’s time are required to shave their heads and eyebrows like the monks do.


There’s nothing scheduled until three in the afternoon, so you have time for personal practice. Even though it’s January, it’s still warm enough in the day that you struggle to stay awake. Finding a walking meditation path, you observe the sensations in your feet as they make contact with the air and earth. You can almost feel the presence of Ajahn Chah here, urging you to do so much walking meditation that you make a rut in your waking path.

At 3:00 you join the other visitors in sweeping leaves, and at 4:30 you have tea time. Mostly this entails drinking sugary beverages to get an energy boost for the rest of the day. You have just enough time to go back to your kuti area to take a cold shower before going to the meditation hall at 6:15.

The evening Puja, or meditation service, starts with chanting in English and Pali. If you’re interested, here’s a link to some recordings. The chanting is finished, and now it’s time to watch the breath, with varying levels of success. Your mileage may vary. But by the end of an hour, the mind usually settles down at least a little, and you peacefully return to your kuti to fall asleep.

What? Is that the alarm already? It can’t be!

Oh, but it is. 0300. Time to get ready for morning Puja at three thirty. Same routine of chanting and meditation, but the newness of the day brings another dimension. And once you get used to it, it’s not so bad. You can even do walking meditation at the back of the meditation hall to stay awake.

You spend an hour doing some cleaning, and then are released until seven to help with setting up the food line. And a new day begins…


After traveling around for so long, staying at WPN was a taste of coming home. I had an encouraging talk with Ajahn Siripañño at the end of my visit there and my stay was a peaceful conclusion for the journey. 

I did spend a day wandering in Bangkok before and after the trip, which I’ll write about later, but Wat Pah Nanachat was both the draw and reward for coming to Thailand, so I wanted to share this first.